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“Full On” Rampage for MacLeod

Dave MacLeod heading to the crux roof traverse of Don’t Die of Ignorance (XI,11, 275m) with Joe French on March 16, 2008. It is now the most difficult route on Ben Nevis, Scotland, which was profiled in Issue 22. [Photo] Joe French, courtesy of

After free soloing Darwin Dixit, a possible 5.14b, in Spain on March 4, Scottish climber Dave MacLeod established Don’t Die of Ignorance (XI,11, 275m), one of Scotland’s hardest winter routes, with Joe French on March 16, 2008.
The eight-pitch line basically follows a 1987 aid route established by Andy Cave and Simon Yates up the steep Comb Buttress of Ben Nevis (profiled in Issue 22) but takes a more direct line at the crux. MacLeod climbed the route ground up; it took him six tries over the past three years to complete. Don’t Die of Ignorance, like The Secret established a few months before (read the December 12, 2007 NewsWire), offers a glimpse of the future of mixed climbing.

The crux second pitch, consisting of a thin ice and drytool traverse underneath a roof, took MacLeod two-and-a-half hours to lead. MacLeod described the experience on his blog: “Just like Friday I desperately struggled to seat my axe in the crux tin opener. I screamed to Joe to expect a fall and released my left axe, cutting loose onto one arm. The axe slid and jerked a centimeter… [a] dynamic match and kung fu allowed one foot to swing onto the wall to the right and up to the peg I got in on Friday. The vertical wall above was climbed in an utterly ‘go for broke’ style, axes ripping, dropping onto one hand and gasping with pump and shrieking for slack. All a bit full on.”

While seconding the crux traverse, French fell off and dangled helplessly by one wrist until he was able to free himself using a jumar. It took him about two hours to get himself untangled from the rope and jug up to the belay, where he found MacLeod blue-lipped and nearly hypothermic, having shed two layers of clothing for the crux lead. After two more pitches of V/VI mixed climbing the pair topped out to a star-studded sky.

MacLeod and French on the upper grooves on Don’t Die of Ignorance (XI,11, 275m), Ben Nevis, Scotland. [Photo] Claire MacLeod, courtesy of

MacLeod has been training on climbs that he thought were “benchmarks for a prerequisite physical level” for an upcoming summer project on Ben Nevis. He climbed Ring of Steall (8c+ [5.14c]), Scotland’s hardest sport route, in August 2007, and A Muerte (9a [5.14d]), Siurana, Spain, in November 2007. He then free soloed Darwin Dixit (8c [5.14b]), a 50-foot, overhanging route, in Margalef, Spain, because it was “at a high enough level that the moves would be totally committing, and one where the random objective danger of loose rock would not enter the risk equation.” [This paragraph was corrected on March 20. Thanks to our vigilant reader. –Ed.]

MacLeod’s ascent of Darwin Dixit is likely the first 5.14b free solo that wasn’t a highball boulder problem. The previous highest grade was 5.14a, set by Alexander Huber when he free soloed Kommunist in Austria.

MacLeod climbed Darwin Dixit without pads and spotters and wrote in his blog that he felt “utterly focused, and in the classic performance paradox of extreme effort but feeling effortless at the same time.”

MacLeod has only soloed two routes, the other was Hurly Burly (5.13d), Scotland, in the past nine years. He explains in his blog why he solos so rarely: “Even for the few who can be in complete control of their body and mind on a solo, they cannot be in control of the rock or the weather. That said, soloists’ awareness and anticipation of these is exceptional because of their experience and huge dedication to their chosen task. Is soloing worth the risk? Sometimes. As I’ve said before, the risks of doing things in life have to weigh up against the risks of not doing things.”


MacLeod free soloing Darwin Dixit (8c [5.14b]), Margalef, Spain, on March 4, 2008–likely the hardest free solo ever. [Photo] Claire MacLeod, courtesy of